Gloriously clutter-free, Google Talk's beta gives you text and voice messaging, smooth integration with Gmail, rudimentary customisation options… and that's about it. To try Google Talk you need an account with Gmail – or Google Mail as we are now supposed to refer to the webmail service in the UK. It's yet another potentially exciting service from the search giant that you can use in its beta form.
If you have an account, you can get rolling by inviting Gmail contacts of your choosing to download the free Google Talk app; these contacts are automatically moved into the program. Installing the IM (instant-messaging) application is quick and painless, and it starts up in just a few seconds.
The first thing that struck us about Google Talk was its simplicity – a rare thing in the realm of IM applications. If you're used to working with a program that is laden with features and customisation options, you'll find Google Talk startlingly austere. It's truly bare-boned, with limited customisation settings.
Warm and clean
Once we had Google Talk up and running, we actually warmed to the squeaky-clean environment. It's advert and pop-up free, includes lots of white space and contains no annoying clusters of icons to distract you from your messaging business. In fact, going from the likes of Yahoo Messenger to Google Talk is a bit like going from a noisy consumer electronics superstore to a quiet boutique up a side street.
We also liked being able to detach the messaging window from the contacts list and move both around. If you re-attach them by placing the messaging pane below the contacts window, the former automatically resizes itself to fit the latter's vertical profile.
If you leave Google Talk's Notifications settings at their default values, you'll receive an alert every time an email drops into your Gmail account. A small window pops up briefly, identifying the sender's name and the subject line. That's handy if you want to keep an eye out for something in particular. But if you get dozens of emails every hour you may want to turn off those signals.
In our voice chat tests, call quality sounded impressive – initially. Despite a faint hum in the background, our editor's voice and mine sounded crisp, and our sentences stayed intact. But further into the conversation things went downhill: it sounded as though we were both talking on mobile phones in a car wash. The slushing sound became so distracting that we simply hung up.
You might consider Google Talk somewhat exclusive, since you need to be part of the Gmail club to get it. But it's not a closed circuit; the Google Talk network is compatible with the XMPP (Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol), which lets you send IMs to other XMPP-compliant programs, such as Gaim, Jabber and iChat. Your buddies will need to have Gmail and configure their IM program to work accordingly.
Perhaps the most glaring omission – given that this comes from Google, whose mission is 'to organise the world's information' – is the fact that the text IM messages are not logged, stored or indexed. So the only IM service that Google's desktop search can't index is Google's own. Not everyone searches their logs, but those of us that do will avoid Google Talk for instant messaging until this is put right.
The number of options is very small compared with open-source clients such as Gaim, or with Yahoo, Skype and AIM (or even MSN Messenger). It doesn't do video, it doesn't share images, it doesn't do voicemail. It doesn't offer encryption. It only does voice if you use the Google Talk client, which runs only on Windows – so there is no mobile Google Talk at present. That said, all is not lost on the video side. Google Talkers yearning for this feature can try a plug-in called Festoon by Santa Cruz Networks.